Mike Mearls’ Vindication

In the interests of putting something positive at the top o’ the blog, I want to recommend Mike Mearls’ twitter account. It’s remarkably informative.

For instance, earlier this month he offered up a really nice breakdown of how streaming and podcasting games has fed back into game design. I find it particularly interesting for illustrating how the forum culture during the 3E-4E years ended up freezing out some preferences, and gave abstract theory the upper hand for a while to the detriment of actual play at the table. It’s particularly interesting because it ties into some of the stuff Mearls was saying during the D&D Next playtest process, where he talked about the designers were surprised at how much appetite there was for a simpler, lighter game than 3E or 4E.

You also have him slipping out bombshells like the fact that over its lifetime the 5E Player’s Handbook has outsold the lifetime sales of the 3E, 3.5E, and 4E Player’s Handbooks (individually, not combined). Of course, we just have his word for it. But I am not sure WotC or Hasbro would be too thrilled with Mike sharing such information on his public twitter feet, using the #WotCStaff hashtag, unless it were true by at least some definition. (Mike makes it clear in subsequent tweets that this is in terms of books sold, not cash revenue.)

I can’t help but see this as a bit of well-deserved vindication of the new direction Mearls has taken D&D in – especially in terms of steering it back to the “big church” approach and going for a slow and steady release schedule rather than a glut of extra supplements. The forum culture may whine that it isn’t getting enough grist for the charop mill, but I think it is healthier for the game overall.

5E: Learning to Expand

One of the things that 5E has done that’s really helped to convince me that Wizards have turned a corner with their management of Dungeons & Dragons is to slow down the pace at which products are churned out for the tabletop game. To keep up with 3.X and 4E often required matching pace with a rapid release schedule; even if you wanted to go “core only”, in 4E you kind of had to pay attention to the regularly released errata, particularly if you were using D&D Insider to produce characters (and many cite DDI as an essential component of the 4E era), because of course the errata would be applied to the online character generator in turn. By easing off on the pace of releases, Wizards have been able to make sure the barrier to entry isn’t allowed to escalate and provide a stable platform for the development of videogames like Sword Coast Adventures.

At the same time, if Wizards never bring out new material for 5E, they pretty much lose our custom after we’ve bought the core books, particularly if we are not interested in the published adventures put out for the game. So far they’ve come up with three distinct channels for expanding the game, only one of which is not available for free.

The Website

Expansion material on the Wizards website has taken two forms, both of which are inspired by the game’s long history. Sage Advice started out decades ago as the system questions-and-answers section in Dragon magazine, and has been brought back on the website to provide helpful guidance on areas of the rules people are confused about. Helpfully, Wizards have been compiling the columns in a regularly-updated PDF, so those that find the Sage’s advice reassuring can have it in one convenient, searchable file. Personally, I have few qualms about making rulings about such things on the spot and pressing on, but I can see how such clarifications can be necessary in an organised play context or be helpful to new players, and the 5E incarnation of the Sage shows an admirably light touch and a willingness to say “Hey, it’s your game, the rule is intended to work like X but if you prefer to work it like Y you won’t wreck anything”.

The other component of the website offerings is Unearthed Arcana. The original UA consisted of a hardback of updates and new rules for 1E, rushed out by Gary Gygax in a bid to put TSR’s fortunes back on track. The 5E incarnation riffs on the original’s reputation for incorporating material that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, or which hadn’t been rigorously playtested; it offers up snippets of rules that are currently undergoing development but which are explicitly not ready for prime time and aren’t necessarily suitable for all campaigns. These have included treats like the much-requested nonmagical ranger variant, early drafts at converting some Eberron material to 5E, and a first pass at putting together a psionics system for 5E – this last having already been cited as a necessary prerequisite for putting out a 5E take on Dark Sun. These Unearthed Arcana articles are exactly the sort of mixed bag you would expect from the concept, but they are clearly and loudly labelled as such and it’s nice to see that the development team are still keen on doing wide playtesting of new ideas and working on interesting stuff in the background.

Player’s Companion

This expansion – including a bunch of elemental-themed options and spells (including honest to goodness aarakocra stats) – is explicitly branded to tie into the Elemental Evil storyline, right down to including the Elemental Evil name on the front cover and using art that has also heavily featured in the website material promoting the storyline. The idea seems to be to provide material that thematically ties in neatly with Princes of the Apocalypse – the published home campaign for the Elemental Evil storyline – as well as the relevant Adventurer’s League adventures, but without tying it so closely to that story that you can’t use the stuff in here in your average home campaign.

At the same time, it’s very much a Player’s Companion. There’s not much setting material or DM-side stuff here, and it’s also so tightly themed that it’s quite brief – you can download it as a free PDF or get a hardcopy printed through DriveThruRPG for a nominal cost. It’s a nice present to the fanbase, but it’s not really something that can actually boost the game line’s revenue.

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

This is basically the core 5E setting book for the Forgotten Realms, offering up a general overview of the continent of Faerun and a really complete guide to the gods of the Realms, along with a brief history. Still, as the title implies it’s the Sword Coast that gets the most attention here, from Icewind Dale in the north all the way down to Baldur’s Gate.

This, frankly, is just plain smart. The Sword Coast is the setting of all the adventures released officially for 5E so far, so those who have been keeping up with that in their home campaigns or through organised play will already have fond memories of it, and it’s also where the most fondly-remembered Forgotten Realms videogames took place – Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate, obviously, but also Neverwinter Nights, Eye of the Beholder, and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Putting all of the Realms under a similarly detailed microscope would result in a fat and expensive book, but this way Wizards are able to give a detailed overview of the part of the Realms which is arguably the most famous and popular whilst giving enough details about other lands that even if they never put out another regional sourcebook you’ll still be able o run games in them.

The regional details are given as in-character travelogues rather than OOC statements of fact, because unlike previous presentations of the setting this is meant to be a player-facing book and the DM is explicitly encouraged to dream up their own answers to mysteries in the text. On top of that, much of the book is system-neutral, making it useful for fans of prior editions who want to stay current with the setting lore but don’t want to use 5E.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of all is how little mention there is of the more overpowered and overused NPCs of the setting; though Drizzt and Elminster are mentioned in the introduction, they’re almost entirely absent from the rest of the text. A lot has been made of how the changes to the setting made in the Guide seem mostly intended to roll back the unpopular changes made during the 4E era, but in terms of the book’s philosophy the writers seem to have gone back way further to try and recapture the “this is your Forgotten Realms, canon be damned!” approach that fans prize in the setting’s earliest products. This is despite the fact that Wizards have continued to knock out Drizzt and Elminster novels from RA Salvatore and Ed Greenwood at a merry pace. To be honest, I don’t mind Drizzt and Elminster as characters in books, because it isn’t really reasonable to expect Wizards to publish Realms novels with INSERT YOUR PC HERE written whenever the protagonist’s name is mentioned; by definition, any novels set in a game line must present protagonists who end up solving problems that PCs in a tabletop game ought to be solving themselves, and evidently Drizzt and Elminster still have fanbases enthusiastic enough to justify making them the characters in question; at the same time, Wizards seem to have realised that the less their presence is felt in the tabletop product, the better you undermine the old perception that Forgotten Realms is overly dominated by superpowered NPCs and the more space you leave for people to hang their own ideas off the adventure hooks proffered.

As far as system bits go, the chapter offering these is brief but flavourful, and the designers show a fair degree of restraint in how they implement stuff – in particular, they don’t feel obligated to completely stat out Realms-specific racial variants or subclasses if a perfectly serviceable type is already available in the Player’s Handbook. Neatly, they also include an appendix with advice on how the new subclasses and so on could be incorporated into homebrew worlds or other D&D campaign worlds, including Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Eberron. If Wizards ever get around to adapting those worlds to 5E (which seems likelier for Eberron, which apparently is in the top tier as far as setting popularity goes these days, than second-tier worlds like Greyhawk or Dragonlance), these sections might feel a little redundant next to the more world-specific material put out for the settings, but if they don’t this is a nice courtesy and it doesn’t take up too much space.

One notable thing about the supplement is that, like the adventures preceding it, it wasn’t written in-house by Wizards but done on commission by a third party – in this case Green Ronin. Wizards are obviously keen to maintain good relations with third party developers in the 5E era, going so far as to print an advert for a whole heap of non-D&D Green Ronin products at the back of the book, and I suspect engagement with third parties will be how Wizards manages to bring back some of the less popular settings – simply by licencing them out with correspondingly more financial risk and responsibility for printing on the shoulders of the licensees the more niche the setting is.

If the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is anything to go by, 5E is going to be a markedly easier game to keep up with than 3.X or 4E, with the supplement firmly steering away from extra crunch for the sake of it and aiming for quality over quantity in the system additions it does make, with an emphasis on providing appropriate additional options within the existing framework of the game rather than bending or breaking that framework altogether. This could well prove to be a sustainable model for a more evergreen edition of the game, which is fine by me.

The Threefold Dungeon Master

As the third piece of the puzzle when it comes to the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a position to either cement the positive reception the rest of the core books have received or mar them. At the end of the day, not only does it confirm 5th Edition as my new favourite version of D&D, but it also tips the designers’ hands a little by subtly evoking a quasi-threefold model only to reject the conclusions reached by previous purveyors of such models.

The book is split into three major sections: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. The first section provides a discussion of worldbuilding – not quite so in-depth as more dedicated books on the subject have been able to offer, but providing enough material and ideas that any reasonably bright newcomer would be able to use this to make a start. As well as giving the usual pointers on mapping, establishing the parameters of societies, constructing pantheons and so on, the section also offers pointers on tampering with more fundamental premises, like coming up with your own planar cosmology or altering the fundamental assumptions underpinning standard D&D fantasy. In addition to that, there’s a decent explanation of the 5th Edition cosmology (essentially the old Great Wheel with cool bits from 4E like the Shadowfell and Feywild tacked on) that, whilst not going into Planescape levels of detail, at least gives enough support to at least consider running excursions to those planes if you feel like it, which is better than the extremely sparse description given in the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide managed.

As a nice touch, this section finishes off with a quick summary of the various published campaign worlds for D&D – including settings like Birthright and Mystara that haven’t had any official support since the 2nd Edition days. Whilst I doubt that Wizards will be producing 5th Edition updates for more than a fraction of these settings, at the same time it doesn’t do them any harm to mention them seeing how DNDclassics.com offers most of the original releases for them as PDF downloads, and giving newcomers a quick reference to all these different worlds also helps to demystify any online discussion of them they come across.

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5E Monster Manual: The Best of All Possible Worlds

I got the 5th Edition Monster Manual a while back but it took me a fair bit to do a review, simply because it made me want to do something I rarely find myself wanting to do with monster collections: read the dang thing from cover to cover.

The way it did this really quite simple: it presents a bunch of monsters in such a way that you simultaneously love reading about them and really want to feature them in a game.

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5E Player’s Handbook: A Cornucopia of Delights

Having been suitably impressed by reading and playing a bit of the Starter Set, as well as the Basic Rules for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I decided to pick up the Player’s Handbook and I am genuinely impressed with what I’ve got for my money.

What jumps out at you if you’ve read over the Basic Rules is that the Player’s Handbook offers, for the most part, exactly the same thing in terms of rules and character generation processes,  just more of it. It’s split into three sections – character creation, playing the game, and magic – and of these the actual rules for playing the game are the slimmest by a long way. (In fact, if you’ve read the Basic Rules you’ve pretty much covered them.) The character generation section and magic sections are substantially expanded from the Basic Rules, by comparison, but at the same time for the most part this consists of the addition of more options – more races and subraces, more classes and class specialisations, more backgrounds, and more spells.

Multiclassing and feats are presented as purely optional offerings to add extra customisation, but the range of feats offered and potential advantages of multiclassing are limited enough to save the game from becoming subject to the same character optimisation arms race that was a feature of the 3rd Edition era. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t quite seem worth multiclassing unless you absolutely, positively can’t make your character concept fit one of the existing class options – with subclasses like the Eldritch Knight, a Fighter who can cast some magic spells, out there for you to play with the need to dip into one class or another to get access to the capabilities you want your character to have is lessened. Furthermore, because all feats are available to all characters, picking up a feat here or there can help you branch out your character in directions not necessarily connected to their niche – for instance, the Dungeon Delver feat gives you the sort of knack for finding secret features of dungeon architecture you might otherwise associate with rogues.

One interesting feature of the new Handbook is the appendices, which range from little bonuses which are nice to have but not essential to really incredibly useful features. There’s an extensive list of statistics for animals and monsters that can be summoned or shapeshifted into by PC abilities, which Druid players and the like will find incredibly useful, and there’s a summary of a range of historical, setting-specific, and classic nonhuman deities which DMs and Cleric players alike will find handy. On top of that, there’s a discussion of the structure of the planes which is quite fun – for the most part the structure from 1E-3E is retained with some tweaks to allow for features like the Shadowfell and Feywild from 4E to be included. (The biggest change is to the elemental planes; close to the Prime Material Plane they are almost-mundane worlds in which one element or another happens to predominate, only becoming the hostile hellscapes they’ve commonly been presented as when you get deeper into them and then merging together at their furthest extent to become the 4E Elemental Chaos, whilst the Positive and Negative Energy Planes now exist outside the Outer Planes to avoid all of that Quasi-elemental plane nonsense.) Oh, and Sigil is canon.

For the most part, though, this is a book with few surprises if you’ve read the Basic Rules and/or Starter Set, which in itself is probably a good thing. The 2E feel with 4E mechanical rigour thing that Dan identified is the big selling point of 5E, so far as I am concerned, and this Player’s Handbook feels thoroughly in the 2E tradition. In particular, the artwork, like 2E’s, draws on a range of aesthetics and styles that all feel D&D-like whilst not being homogenised – a stark gear shift from the “dungeonpunk” style used for 3E and 4E, but arguably a necessary one since Pathfinder does dungeonpunk damn well these days and 5E is deliberately going for a big tent approach. (In fact, it’s arguably a bigger tent than core book D&D has ever been; the inner front page sports artwork of an African warrior fighting decidedly nontraditional-looking goblins in a desert, the Monk class’s ties to classic martial arts movies is explicitly acknowledge by talking about how Monk powers work off manipulating ki, and in general both the text and the artwork emphasise that you don’t have to be white and European to be part of the D&D cosmos.)

In a nice touch, the last thing you get before the index and character sheers is Appendix E – an update of Appendix N from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide, complete with Gygax’s original preamble, with new books added to the list to supplement those Gary already cited as being influences on the game. The inclusion of new books is an interesting acknowledgement that from its publication D&D has been an influence on as well as influenced by literary fantasy; as well as the major Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, the list includes works by RPG-inspired writers like George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. (It also includes The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, which isn’t very D&D-like but does at least show good taste.) The most distinctive new inclusion on the list, however, is Andre Norton’s Quag Keep and her Witch World series- the first of which was the first D&D novelisation, the latter of which is a classic Norton series that was almost certainly grounds for her inclusion in the original Appendix N. Hopefully, with this solid new edition D&D will stay part of the fantasy fiction feedback loop for years to come.

Meanwhile, how’s 5th Edition doing in the ENWorld chart?

It’s over one thousaaaaaaaaaand!

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: The Kids Are (Going To Be) Alright

The Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D isn’t actually designed for the likes of me. Mike Mearls and his team’s declared intention with the product is to produce something you can give to a beginner and which can train them to be a Dungeon Master from the get-go. At the same time, it comes bundled with a 5E adventure (Lost Mine of Phandelver) intended to take characters from level 1 to level 5 – a substantial prospect in its own right – and it comes at a low enough price that I didn’t see any harm in picking it up.

Overall I’m impressed. Yes, the box is a little big for the rather sparse contents – a set of dice, a 32 page set of starter rules, a 64 page adventure, 5 pregen PCs and a blank character sheet with an advert for the D&D Encounters organised play network on the back. But when you take out the spacer at the bottom you end up with a nice deep box to stash your other 5E bits in – whether you end up getting the full-bore Player’s Handbook and other core books or just print out the Basic D&D PDF that Wizards have put out for free. And the actual contents themselves are perhaps the best introduction to D&D that Wizards has ever put out.

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